The Satori Group’s <em>Winky</em> Asks Hard Questions Amid the Laughs
For a year now, I’ve been waiting for the chance to actually see one of the Satori Group‘s performances. I’ve caught founding member Adam Standley in other companies’ plays, I’ve done a pair of features on the group, but for one reason or another, I wasn’t able to catch either Tragedy: a tragedy last April, or Artifacts of Consequence last fall. But Friday, I finally got my chance with the opening of the company’s adaptation of George Saunders’ short story “Winky” (through April 5; tickets $15), and for all that build-up, Satori didn’t disappoint.
Upon entering the performance space, in an art studio in the 619 Arts Building in Pioneer Square, the audience is seated on folding chairs in what’s set up as an intimate conference space. A small stage is situated below a projection screen, where a series of slides introduces us to the self-help philosophy of Tom Rodgers, with everything from celebrity endorsements (a local CEO shows up with the pull quote: “Tom Rodgers changed my life. I changed the world”) to a slide inviting the audience to text in questions for Tom (which is real; feel free to text them in to the number provided, and they’ll show up in performance).
The play begins as a troupe of actors is trotted out to perform an introduction to the ideas you’re going to learn about at the “People of Power: Level 1″ seminar, before Rodgers himself (Adam Standley) takes the stage to walk you through the basics. Your soul, he informs us, is like oatmeal—wholesome, nourishing, and pure—but someone is busy crapping in it, and with his help, you can identify who it is and how to cut him or her out of your life (Rodgers’ logo is a pair of scissors). From there, he takes text messaged questions until finally, one of the audience members, Neil Yaniky (Anthony Darnell), stands up and introduces himself.
The rest of the (real) audience is then instructed to turn their chairs to watch Neil in his personal consultation. Rodgers enters with a blank whiteboard and instructs him to write the name of his “oatmeal crapper” and what this person’s doing that’s so wrong. Neil takes the board, and with growing confidence, scrawls his sister’s name, “Winky,” followed by three complaints: “too religious,” “crazy looking,” and finally, “needs her own place.”
The rest of Winky functions as a character-study diptych, first of Winky herself and then of Neil, leading up to the climactic moment when Neil returns home to carry out his People of Power homework: kicking her out. She’s Neil’s oatmeal crapper, and, as Rodgers explains—whittling down Neil’s complaints to more manageable size—if she has her own place, then it’s really not his problem whether she looks insane or is too religious.
Rodgers’ pay-for-self-improvement shtick is inherently ridiculous, but you have to look no further than these opening scenes to see what makes the Satori Group so special and talented. They don’t shy away from playing for laughs, but they don’t let the parody get in the way of the fact that Rodgers is the one stating the work’s central question. He may be callous (his own oatmeal crapper was none other than his paraplegic brother) and malapropism prone (“metafiguratively speaking”), but he’s also compelling, seductive even, because his philosophy asks us do what we only wish we could: put ourselves first, ahead of other people and the relationships that tether us to them.
Standley owns his performance of Rodgers as a self-serving shill out for money, but he doesn’t give us pauses for laughs, he races us through the tripe Rodgers spouts so that the message sets in, and no matter how loathsome he may seem, by the time his scene ends, he’s planted the question in the audiences’ heads that the rest of the show explores: why is it that we can’t just have what we want?
The character studies that follow are immersive performances that set up the conflict between Winky and Neil. The audience moves into even more intimate quarters to watch Winky (played with remarkable tenderness by Greta Wilson)—who’s clearly suffering some sort of dissociative disorder—go through her day. She sets out to do the dishes, change into clean clothes, and make tea for her brother when he gets home, but none of these will ever be accomplished. Instead, she talks to socks, talks the wallpaper patterns, and is constantly dropping everything to play her own Christian folk songs on the guitar, convinced she’ll one day be a star. Through a series of video projections (live and pre-recorded), puppetry displays, and walk-on performance by the ensemble) we flash back through Winky’s life, from her and Neil’s impoverished and humiliating childhood, to when he takes her in after her roommates kick her out, to when she gets pushed out of her parish for her increasingly odd behavior.
She fixates on Neil (“Neil-Neil” is her pet name for him, repeated enough that when it’s used at the end, it’s a bit like a sock to the gut) as her savior and hero, a man who’s stronger than her own father was and who courageously takes her in and protects her from the world. But at the same time, the audience gets to see how impossible the situation is. Over the course of the day, she just gets messier and messier, and when Neil arrives home, she and the kitchen are even more trashed than when we started. She answers the door promising tea and a party, but the audience knows that’s not there for him, even if she, sadly, does not.
For his part, Neil is a bit of a loser, and as you watch him walk home to confront Winky, you see him reconstructing the events of the past with him cast as the victim, and fantasizing about how good his life can become without her. But no matter how deluded and selfish he seems, you know, from having experienced Winky already, that there’s some truth behind his anger and resentment: she’s impossible, incapable of actually doing anything for his benefit, and desperately in need of taking care of, which can only come at his expense.
So when the two finally meet at the door to their home, Neil having pumped himself up to kick her out, Winky blithely promising her beloved “Neil Neil” a tea party that you know isn’t waiting inside, the tragic trajectory of both these characters’ lives is suddenly captured in a single moment, in a single choice. Neil, clench-fisted and biting his lip, tries to work up the courage to say what’s he’s come to say, only to fail. Defeated, he walks past her, angry, bitter, and staring down the long road of the rest of his unhappy life, with her trailing helplessly behind.
The final scene—which carries a wallop of anguish and emotion—is the sort of thing you so rarely get to see happen on stage, and it speaks to the success of the Satori Group’s long development process. One of the biggest problems with scripts is that they’re over written, the playwright trying to compensate for a distrust of actors by putting everything in words. In contrast, with Winky, playwright Spike Friedman and director Caitlin Sullivan have carefully crafted, through an intensive development process with the rest of the company, a moment in which little is said but a huge amount is communicated, by using the piece to expose the audience to what’s at stake when a sister greets her brother at the door.
Now, all of this isn’t to say that Winky doesn’t have its problems. The transitions were a bit long, even if they were used to shift from one perspective to another; the execution of some elements (like the video) was stronger than others (like the set itself), creating an unfortunate contrast; and, for my money, the shift from Neil’s scene to the climax at the door could probably have been a second or two snappier, denying the audience a moment to exhale, and better sustaining the tension that Darnell has built up. And overall, I felt like the production was almost too busy, as though the company was too willing to incorporate ideas and images and elements, and that a more stripped down production could have served the story and performances better.
But in the end, that’s neither here nor there. I don’t normally use this to excuse a production’s weaknesses, but the Satori Group is experimenting widely right now with a lot of different ideas and media (in particularly, I know that Andrew Lazarow is looking to push the boundaries of how video is incorporated in live performance), and that’s exciting enough to get you past the occasional weakness in execution. When you see the show, you respond to the sheer ambition—to say nothing of the overall accomplishment of the performances and writing. Winky may not be perfect, but it goes in directions few other companies would dare to take a production with fringe theatre resources, and anyone who gets the chance to see this piece (and I would encourage anyone do so) is going to walk out knowing that the risks these people are taking today are going to pay dividends in the future.